Jobs from the flipside: My life as a funeral director

Editor’s note: For the next few weeks, Teens & Twenties volunteer writer Sabrina Otero will highlight unusual jobs performed by teens and twenty-somethings.

By Sabrina Otero
Times-News correspondent
teens20@thetimesnews.com

Heather Hernandez, a 26-year-old funeral director who lives in Califorinia, writes a blog titled "Mortuary Report." / Photo submitted

“When people learn what I do, it either goes one of two ways. The first way involves people absolutely not wanting to know anything else. They completely shut down and get creeped out. The alternative is that people are utterly fascinated and want to hear stories or ask tons of questions,” Heather Hernandez, a 26-year-old funeral director and creator of the blog “The Mortuary Report” explained.
Heather also is the focus of Teens & Twenties’ first article in a series spotlighting young people in unusually interesting and overlooked occupations.
“I’m a (pretty) normal woman in her mid-20s, and I’d much rather wax poetic about Doctor Who than talk your ear off about death,” she said.
Any job that involves being comfortable working in proximity with dead bodies is bound to raise a few eyebrows. Therefore, the fact that Heather herself defies the traditional image of a caretaker for the deceased continues to be equal parts inspiring and puzzling for many of  her readers.
“I’m often told that I’m not what people expect to see when they come to meet a mortician. One of the main questions I usually get is, ‘Why would a cute girl like you want to do something like that?’ ”
Much of the appeal of her online blog is that it provides visitors with a genuine insider’s perspective of a mortician’s day, the profound respect Heather has for her work, and the tactful manner in which she cares for her decedents while meeting various requests from their loved ones:
“Being a funeral director is like being a wedding planner,” Hernandez said. “Except instead of a year to plan an event, I’ve got five days, if I’m really lucky. I’m part grief counselor, part customer service rep, part sales person, part scientist and part artist. I like being able to see my work actually come to fruition and I love being able to take care of people.”
Teens & 20s: Could you briefly describe your background and the events that led you to pursue a career in funeral directing at such a young age?
Hernandez: “I was born in 1987 in Lubbock, Texas. I’m the oldest of three kids and although I’m a military brat, I grew up (mostly) in south Florida. When I was around 4 years old, my eccentric artist grandmother decided to start giving me books on Egyptian mummification. I was completely hooked and knew from that time that I wanted to work with the dead. I’d go out with my mom and be asking strangers that we met, ‘Did you know in ancient Egypt, during the mummification process, they used to pull the brain out of the nostrils using a metal hook?’ and she’d be shushing me. Fortunately, now I get paid for it.
That desire stuck with me all through my teenage years. Although I wanted to go to mortuary school, my parents wanted me to get a four-year degree. I was accepted at the University of Central Florida, where I studied Political Science with a minor in Middle Eastern Studies.
I joined the Air Force ROTC program my senior year and had full intentions of commissioning and working with the mortuary affairs program in the USAF. I ended up meeting my future ex-husband in the ROTC program and he commissioned. I left the program and followed him across the country to California immediately after graduation instead. Knowing what I still wanted to do, I took California’s LFD (licensed funeral director) exam, which you can do in California as long as you have a two-year degree. Then I enrolled in American River College’s funeral services program and finished it in two semesters.
In California, you have to have your degree in funeral services in order to be an embalmer as well. I’ve been working in the industry since 2010.
Aside from being a funeral director and apprentice embalmer, I’m also a pet lover (three dogs and a cat) and an avid reader (I aim to read at least one book a week). I am big on volunteerism and a writer/blogger. I also suffer from a collagen disorder called hypermobility which leads to fun issues like daily joint dislocations, but what doesn’t kill ya only delays the inevitable.
Teens & 20s: Considering some stereotypes people have about death and dying, how is your particular job actually an ideal one for young people like yourself?
Hernandez: A lot of people operate under the mistaken belief that working in the funeral industry means working only with the dead. Honestly, I spend about 90 percent of my time working with the living. In today’s society, with cremation on the rise, making a living solely as an embalmer is a real challenge. Being well-rounded means being able to meet with families. I always say that the best preparation I’ve had for my job was actually working in the restaurant business from age 15. It’s very much a customer-service job. One of the best parts about my job is that I do something different every single day. I meet new people and have brand new challenges. Also, in this economy, having a trade degree is a wonderful thing.
Teens & 20s: Can you debunk a few myths about being a funeral director? In other words, what are the 10 top things people do not know (or get wrong) about your daily duties?
Hernandez: With my job, this one could seriously go on forever:
1. No, funeral directors don’t get into the job just because we want to be rich. Most of us get into it because we love what we do. We make a living, but I’m living in a one-bedroom apartment right now.
2. Nope, I don’t wear black all-day, every day. I love to wear color; one of my favorite work dresses has toucans on it, and I have tons of tattoos.
3. On that same note, I’m not obsessed with the ghoulish and the creepy.
4. We don’t put anything into the crematory retort to make it smell like cake. I have no idea where this one started, but I’ve heard it on multiple occasions.
5.  I didn’t get into this because I love dead bodies. I spend the vast majority of my time working with the living.
6. Not all funeral directors are religious. I’m an Atheist, and there are a growing number of us who identify as humanists and strive to take care of the spiritual and mourning needs of other non-believers.
7. Not all funeral directors are men. Nowadays, half or more of many graduating classes from mortuary college are comprised of women.
8. Funeral directing is not a new business. Humans have been grieving their dead for as long as we’ve existed, and the job has been and will always be evolving.
9. Funeral directors aren’t always depressed downers. In fact, my job actually makes me very joyful. I learn amazing things about people. I hear spectacular stories, and I get to experience the love people feel for their dead first hand. I had a family call me “the funniest funeral director” in a thank-you letter once.
10. Not all funeral directors come from funeral directing families. I’m a first-generation funeral director and that’s more and more becoming the case.

Visit Heather’s blog for a more in-depth look at the daily life of a funeral director through her uniquely personalized lens: http://mortuaryreport.com. Also, check out her official Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/MortuaryReport and follow her on Instagram: http://instagram.com/deathofregret#

Sabrina Noelle Otero is a junior at the Alamance-Burlington Middle College and a Teens & Twenties writer.

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